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Reflections on a volunteer experience in Bhutan

In Bhutan, Australia's support focuses on developing human resource capacity, building people-to-people links and strengthening the education sector. The Australian Volunteers Program in Bhutan also supports the health sector, agriculture and forests, and a highly skilled civil society.

Bhutan Aid Fact Sheet [PDF]

In 2017-18, 24 Australian Volunteers were placed in Bhutan. Australia's support focuses on developing human resource capacity, building people-to-people links and strengthening the civil service of Bhutan. The Australian Volunteers Program in Bhutan focuses in the 4 sectors of Health, Education, Agriculture & Forestry and Labour & Human Resource sectors. The Program has been highly engaged in elevating the standards of Special Needs Education, contributing to Environmental and Biodiversity conservation, improving the quality tertiary education, increasing livelihoods and also supporting the mental health programs.

Read Kat Francis's story about her experience as a volunteer in Bhutan.

Photo of three women standing infront of a Buddhist monastery
Kat (middle) with fellow Australian volunteers Rachel and Alison, outside Paro Dzong, a Buddhist monastery and fortress, to attend the annual tshechu (festival). Photo Credit: Kat Francis

'I have become more confident, more empathic and much more flexible in my work as a speech pathologist' - Kat Francis's story.

By Kat Francis

Arriving in Bhutan in 2016, I felt like I had entered another world. The landscapes: snow-capped Himalayas, crystalline rivers and hill-top monasteries, were even more stunning than the photos I had Googled.

My assignment, as a speech pathology advisor at the only government school with a special education program in Bhutan, meant I was supporting teachers working with children with communication disabilities related to varying conditions: Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and intellectual and learning difficulties.

Speech pathology is a relatively unknown field in Bhutan, with the country's only local speech pathologist based at the national hospital. Much of my work, therefore, involved creating awareness around my role and the impact of having a communication disability. I found I often needed to explain the difference between speech pathology and teaching.

Adapting to a new culture and working environment was, of course, challenging at times. The working structure was more hierarchical than what I was used to. I appreciated the way the teachers treated one another and their superiors, and how this attitude was reflected in the respect and politeness the students showed their teachers. Students bowing and greeting me as "madam" took some getting used to though!

Managing time in the workplace was also different. The local phenomenon known as "Bhutan stretchable time" meant that meeting times, agendas and deadlines were all flexible. I learned that while time is valuable, personal situations are sometimes more important. If taking your mother to the hospital meant you were running late or had to reschedule, no one minded.

"I came to really value the Bhutanese approach. I became more flexible in my own working practices and found I was able to deal with unexpected situations as they arose in a more calm and relaxed manner."

My experience in Bhutan has been a life-changing one, both personally and professionally. I was lucky enough to travel across the country, be invited into people's homes (Bhutanese hospitality is truly wonderful), trek through the Himalayas and visit some of the most special and spiritual places in the world.

I sampled butter tea and chilli cheese and added a smattering of Dzongkha, the national language, to my smatterings of other languages. My outlook on life has been enriched through conversations with Bhutanese people about Buddhism, their country, their king and their way of life. Professionally, I feel I have become more confident, more empathic, and much more flexible.

After my experience volunteering I can appreciate that having different attitudes and beliefs does not mean that people cannot work well together to try for the best outcome. I feel the process of reflection and modifying my own behaviour and interactions has made me a better therapist and colleague.

I was fortunate to work with some wonderful teachers whose love and care for their students was something I wanted to emulate. In Bhutan, I felt that the human element and connection was always more important than materialistic concerns, and I hope I have carried that away with me.

Kat Francis volunteered as a speech pathology advisor at the Changangkha Middle Secondary School in Bhutan from January 2016 to January 2018, as part of the Australian Volunteers Program. On assignment she was interviewed on local radio about being a speech pathologist in Bhutan.

Last Updated: 27 September 2018
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